The Fresh Air Fund is an independent, not-for-profit agency that organizes free summer experiences in the country for New York City children from low-income communities who often aren't allowed to play outside due to unsafe neighborhoods. Through volunteer host families, five different summer camp options, and weekend camping trips, children are given opportunities to broaden their experiences and give them a “breath of fresh air.”1
In 1877, the Reverend Willard Parsons, minister of a small rural parish in Sherman, Pennsylvania, asked members of his congregation to provide country vacations as volunteer host families for children from New York City tenements. This was the beginning of The Fresh Air Fund tradition.
After just four years, the interest in what was termed the “Friendly Town” movement had increased tremendously. Rev. Parsons turned to Whitelaw Reid, the publisher of New York's Herald Tribune, in order to reach potential contributors and participants. Whitelaw gave editorial support, published feature stories on the movement, and assisted with administrative work. In 1888, he gathered the support of prominent New Yorkers Cleveland H. Dodge, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Morris K. Jesup, and Darius O. Mills to form the board of the newly formed Tribune Fresh Air Fund Society.
Steady news coverage inspired regular donations for The Fresh Air Fund. Land donations in 1908 initiated the possibility of establishing summer camps as well as the host family program. By 1931 they had established eleven camps and a hotel for girls ages 14 through 16. Fifteen years later in 1946, a gift of 1,000 acres in Fishkill, New York and a purchase of an adjoining 2,000 acres meant they could consolidate all their camping programs to within an hour of New York City.
The Fresh Air Fund lost one of their great supporters when The Herald Tribune stopped publishing in 1966. However, The New York Times took up the cause to “ensure the continuity of pioneering programs that lift the minds and hearts of future citizens beyond the often bleak and desperate existence of a closed or semi-isolated society.”2 Since 75% of their financial support comes from individuals' contributions, regular news coverage is part of their continued success.
Children are selected to participate in The Fresh Air Fund’s programs based on financial need. Children are from low-income communities. Fresh Air youngsters are registered by more than 90 social service and community organizations in all five boroughs of New York City. Fresh Air boys and girls from 6 to 18 years old visit over 300 rural, suburban, and small town communities, called Friendly Towns, during the summer. Fresh Air children on first-time visits to Friendly Town host families are 6 to 12 years old and stay for one to two weeks. Sixty-five percent of all children are reinvited to stay with the same host families, year after year. Reinvited youngsters may continue with The Fresh Air Fund through age 18, and many spend the entire summer in the country. Fresh Air children and volunteer families often form bonds of friendship that last a lifetime.
Fresh Air Fund volunteer host families open their homes to inner-city children for one to two weeks or more in the summertime. Each Friendly Town community is supervised by a committee of volunteer leaders. Committee members select host families after reviewing their applications, visiting them in their homes, and checking their personal references. There are no financial requirements for hosting a Fresh Air child. The majority of hosts simply want to share their homes with inner-city youngsters. Host families are not paid. The Fresh Air Fund has a program for placing children who have special physical or emotional needs.
Three thousand New York City youngsters, ages 8 to 15, attend five Fresh Air camps on a 2,300-acre site in Fishkill, New York. Camp Hidden Valley is for boys and girls with and without special needs, 8 to 12 years old; Camp Tommy is for 12- to 15-year-old boys; Camp Hayden-Marks Memorial is for 9- to 12-year-old boys; Camp Mariah is a coed camp for 12- to 14-year-old career campers; and Camp Anita Bliss Coler (Camp ABC) is for girls, 9 to 15 years old. For 13- to 15-year-olds at Camp ABC, The Fresh Air Fund has established the Precious Center for Teen Leadership intended to give young women a safe, nurturing environment to focus on their futures. Additionally, many young people participate in year-round weekend camping experiences. Camp Tommy is named in honor of designer Tommy Hilfiger for his dedication and support of Fresh Air children.
All Fresh Air Fund camps include access to a planetarium, model farm, wilderness trail, ropes course, and the Sharpe Reservation Environmental Study Center. To broaden children's life skills, they are also increasing their focus on literacy, career skills, computer workshops, photography, music, and art in each of the five camps.3
The Fresh Air Fund’s innovative Career Awareness Program is designed to help New York City youngsters understand the relationship between school and work and how to make choices that will determine their futures. In New York City, 12- to 14-year-olds participate in job shadowings that offer close-up views of business, receive after-school tutoring with volunteer tutors, and attend a career fair. The year-round program includes weekend camping trips and an intensive three-and-a-half week summer session at the Career Awareness Camp – Camp Mariah. The career camp is named in honor of Board member/singer Mariah Carey for her dedication, support, and commitment to Fresh Air youngsters. Career awareness graduates continue to receive support through the PreOccupations Club and benefit from the guidance of volunteer mentors.
With the changing demographics of New York City, The Fresh Air Fund has launched the Immigrant Outreach Project, which focuses on including newly arrived and second generation immigrant families. By utilizing culturally sensitive and bilingual staff volunteers, Fresh Air Fund is able to reach this population, which makes up 60% of school children in New York City.4
More than 9,000 New York City children enjoy free Fresh Air Fund programs annually. Each summer, over 4,000 children visit volunteer host families in rural, suburban, and small town communities across 13 states from Virginia to Maine and Canada. Also 3,000 children attend five Fresh Air camps in the summer. Over the last 135 years, The Fresh Air Fund has been able to provide outdoor and country vacations to more than 1.7 million New York City children.5 Besides the nature-based break from the city, these children experience a different way of life and gain valuable educational and career assistance. As one young participant explained, “Getting away from the city was not just a breath of fresh air for me. It was a geography, history, economics, agriculture and sociology lesson all rolled into one.”6
- 1. “More Than a 'Breath of Fresh Air'.” The Opinion Pages, The New York Times. < http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/28/opinion/more-than-a-breath-of-fresh-air.html?scp=1&sq=more%20than%20a%20breathe%20of%20fresh%20air&st=Search > 8 June 2012.
- 2. Haskell, Kari. “The Fresh Air Fund; After 125 Years, Idea Still Changes Lives.” The New York Times. < http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/02/nyregion/the-fresh-air-fund-after-125-years-idea-still-changes-lives.html > 8 June 2012.
- 3. “Facts About the Fresh Air Fund.” The Fresh Air Fund. < http://dl.dropbox.com/u/65619293/Documents/The%20Fresh%20Air%20Fund%20-%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf > 8 June 2012.
- 4. As of 2009. “Focus on New Initiatives.” The Fresh Air Fund. < http://www.freshair.org/docs/default-document-library/freshairfundannualreport2010.pdf?Status=Master > 8 June 2012.
- 5. “About Us.” The Fresh Air Fund. < http://www.freshair.org/top-links/about-us > 8 June 2012.
- 6. Op.cit., “More Than a 'Breath of Fresh Air'.”